Following this past weekend's conference, I thought it would be nice to review some of prominent theories in the psychology of religion. These theories have to do with how we can conceptualize religion and spirituality. As they developed in the realm of psychology, some of them may strike religious believers as being unusual or atheistic. I will discuss the implications of them as I currently understand them.
Attribution theory - generally, this theory has to do with how we attribute causes to events. We might explain events internally, by our own action, or externally, by the action of an outside agent. In relation to religion, attribution theory suggests that humans judge the cause of some actions to be a higher power, which they might term God. The way we attribute the causes of events can be referred to as our locus of control. We can infer causation to self, powerful others, luck, or God (among other sources). While this may sound scientific or reductionistic, I find that this is an important element of faith. Religion and spirituality give believers a new lens to see the world and to interpret what is happening around them.
Motivational theory - One of the earliest studies of religion was by Gordon Allport on the relationship between religion and prejudice. Studies had found a small but significant positive relationship between religious importance and prejudice, such that religious individuals were more prejudiced. Allport posited that this relationship had to do with how one orients oneself to religion. He found that in individuals with an intrinsic orientation towards religion, this relationship reversed and was significantly negatively related to prejudice. People who were oriented toward religion for personal happiness or as a social group as their primary motivations showed a positive association with prejudice. Thus, the motivations for why one pursues religion matter. This was the first study to show that religiousness was more than just an identity but actually had components that were important to understand. I appreciate the concept of intrinsic religiousness because it captures true faith rather than just an identity.
Religious coping - The study of religious coping has recently exploded - and for good reason. This is the most promising area of religious research currently being investigated. Religious coping refers to how we use our faith to deal with problems. Ken Pargament suggests three coping styles: collaborative, deferring, and self-directing. Each of these has to do with how we rely on God in the midst of our problems, do we collaborate with God, do we let God make all the decisions, or do we take the reins for ourselves? In fact, a collaborative style has been shown to be the most healthy, physically and mentally, which is consistent with most religions. (A fourth coping style is surrender - but I have not read Pargament's research on this concept). Religious coping has been shown to be very predictive of spiritual well-being and is therefore a key component of religion.
Multivariate Theory - This is the theory that I have been using and which integrates the above perspectives. Additionally, it holds that religious beliefs are an important part of religion. This theory argues that what we believe affects the reasons we turn to religion (religious motivation), our reasons for being religious affect how we use our religion (religious coping), and that beliefs, motivations, and coping styles compose the structure of our religious life such that our experience of religion (i.e. closeness to God, spiritual well-being, morality, etc.) are founded on these variables.
Attachment theory - the final theory that I am aware of is attachment theory. This theory is based on the belief that our cognitive conception of God, as well as experience of God, has to do with how we connect with God. If we have a secure and trusting attachment with God, we will see God as loving and feel that we are safe in his hands. However, if we see God as abandoning or as restrictive, we will react in other ways. While this is a compelling theory, the empirical evidence for its validity is lacking. However, I anticipate that further research will show that this, too, is an important part of religious life. Certainly, how we interact with God is an important part of our spiritual lives.
Hope these theories enliven your understanding of the psychology of religion. Feel free to ask questions about any of the above.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Over the weekend, I attended the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Denver, CO. It was great getting to meet some of the major figures in the Psychology of Religion. In fact, I was able to go out to dinner with a large group who were celebrating the legacy of Bernard Spilka, who developed an application of the Attribution theory to the study of religion. Many pictures were taken and hopefully I will be able to access some of them in the near future.